Art & Commerce: The King of Things




The new medium is the same as the old medium: TV
Sometimes our oldest friends turn out to be our best friends. Consider the common American television.
Our new-media world was supposed to be ruled by new technology: PC, wireless phone, digital notepads. But suddenly, that new world is looking a lot like the old–the revolution, it turns out, is television.
These are exciting times for the TV. We’ve got new sets with new screens (thinner, wider, bigger, better), interactive services like WebTV, digital recorders with massive hard drives, a new generation of gaming units–and more excuses than ever to waste time on our couches and recliners. With its proposed Time Warner merger, AOL is pursuing access to millions of televisions across the country. The TV strikes back.
This turnabout was easy to miss. We’re so caught up in the medium–debating issues like televised violence, audience fragmentation, casting diversity–we overlook how fundamental the appliance has become in our lives. While TV changes in fascinating ways, it retains a commanding status as our most important household possession.
It’s remarkable how strong the bond between human and appliance has become. Simply put, we love our TVs. As one consumer said, “It’s a friend that never leaves.” The television has become the real hearth for a media-savvy people.
As a society dominated by the things we own, television is our undisputed “king of things.” It’s the appliance we’ll replace before it breaks down (not so the lowly dishwasher), the appliance we buy other appliances to serve (VCRs, video games, WebTV), a technology that proliferates from room to room. One woman I know owns four televisions, one in her living room, bedroom, kitchen and bathroom. And she lives alone.
But she’s by no means the exception (even if the bathroom thing seems extreme). The days of hiding our TVs in cabinets are gone; today, we literally put them on a pedestal for everyone to enjoy, admire and worship. We show off our TVs the way we used to show off our cars before they all started looking the same.
This symbiotic relationship is as common as our American faith in better living through technology. Owning a TV helps us feel like we belong in this culture. Can you really trust someone who refuses to buy one? Owning a huge TV helps us feel like we’ve succeeded in this culture–it’s a piece of the good life, a chunk of the American dream.
At its heart, television is a sophisticated technology that does all the work for us. All you need is a remote control and a thumb. What could be simpler?
In the future, expect the television to get stronger: more TVs in more rooms, bigger TVs, more peripherals, more functionality. If it’s fun and easy and we can do it on our television, we’re already sold.
When “convergence” finally happens, it will mean the submission of computers and the Internet to the television interface (think AOL-Time Warner). Whatever new technologies and media emerge, they will, in the end, conform to the technology consumers trust most: their old friend the television.
Mark Lantz is vice president and planning director at Foote, Cone & Belding in San Francisco